It is just over a week until the first Grand Prix of the 2017 season in Australia and the second of two pre-season testing weeks concluded last Friday
A new set of rules has been introduced for the 2017 season and the pre-season tests will see the first clues as to whether the established pecking order could be shaken up or the front runners have extended their advantages.
It is a time of much change for F1 with new owners in Liberty Media, the removal of Bernie Ecclestone and the return of Ross Brawn as managing director of racing. Brawn has said he wants to develop a purer, simpler sport in which more teams and drivers can win.
This year cars will be wider with bigger tyres and reshaped wings. With audience figures having dropped for F1 in recent years, and with the memory of a big shake up in the pecking order when the last big overhaul of the regulations took place in 2009 (Brawn took advantage of a loophole to go from nowhere in 2008 to World Champions in 2009), many F1 watchers are hoping that there will be fresh challengers to Mercedes dominance and new rivalries within more exciting racing to attract new audiences.
For the past six years, F1 tyres have had high ‘thermal degradation’. They over-heated when drivers pushed hard and never recovered their grip. Drivers had to lap below top speeds to extend tyre life. The FIA has instructed Pirelli that tyres must not overheat irrecoverably when a driver is following another car and the rate of degradation must be such that drivers can push hard throughout a race.
Restrictions on engine development have also been relaxed. The complicated ‘token’ system that limited the amount of changes allowed to engines in a season has been dropped. Now, the only restrictions are that any developments can be introduced only with a new engine. Teams are still limited to four engines in a season.
The fear in some quarters is that the new cars could reduce overtaking. The wider cars and tyres mean the cars will produce more drag and will be slower in a straight line whilst cornering speeds will be higher. Braking distances will inevitably be reduced, which makes overtaking harder. Having said all of this we need to consider that DRS has a big impact in overtaking in the F1 of today so the ‘power’ of the 2017 DRS systems (i.e. the speed difference between a DRS active and non DRS car) will be important.
Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff, who was opposed to the rule changes, says: “I hope that overtaking is not going to be too difficult because of the width of the car and the dirty air behind it – but let’s see.”
On Five Live Lewis Hamilton said “”My engineers say it’s going to be a lot harder to overtake. If we see overtaking is worse, it’s going to be worse for the fans, the spectacle will be worse so I’m hoping that’s not the case.”
If that happens, serious questions will be asked about the decisions that were made which compelled teams to develop a new type of car only to make F1 a worse spectacle.
As it is, notwithstanding the fears that over-taking will be even more difficult, there is hope that a team will be that bit closer to Mercedes and give a genuine two team fight for the Drivers and Constructors championships, something the sport needs after three years of one team being so far ahead, and another team being far ahead in the three years before that.
Lewis Hamilton hopes so too. In the same radio interview he said “I think Red Bull always create an amazing car and this is a new area of down-force so I think it’ll be really interesting to see what they pull out and I’m hoping it’ll be a real mixture of competition. I hope it’ll be close so we’ll be fighting with Red Bull and Ferrari. That’s what the fans want to see.”
Although it is sometimes difficult to extrapolate from pre-season testing cars are on different strategies, fuel loads etc) it does appear that Ferrari have closed the pace gap on Mercedes substantially and we could have a fight on our hands
Best Odds for the 2017 Drivers Championship are as follows
Hamilton is understandably a strong favourite, with Bottas a relatively inexperienced new partner. Vettel’s odds have nearly halved over the period of the two tests reflecting Ferrari’s pace whilst those for the two Red Bull drives have drifted as they appear to be behind the front two teams at this early stage.